Who hasn’t watched a young child obsessively build a tall structure out of blocks, knock it down, build it up again, knock it down again, and keep doing that for a long half hour? What is going on there?
Is the child gaining mastery of something? Does it somehow just feel good? Are both creating and destroying necessary activities in a child’s life? Surely there is no need to pathologize that half hour! We must be careful not to start down the road of labeling just because our child is doing something that by our standards seems like “too much” or “a little odd.” You could label that half-hour “symptomatic of obsessive-compulsive behavior” or you could say that it is just what childhood looks like—and wouldn’t the latter be truer?
What is normal and what is abnormal? Are those medical terms, statistical terms, or social terms? Is what one culture calls normal also normal in all other cultures? If your child eats dirt, is that a “symptom of a mental disorder” or a craving for minerals lacking in his or her diet? If your young son loves dresses, is that weird or an expression of his basic orientation? Is even something as seemingly out of the ordinary as hearing voices that unusual or worrisome? New research speculates that it may be quite common and only worrisome depending on what the voices are saying. If our child breaks an arm, we have no doubt that something needing attention has happened. But which feelings, moods, attitudes and behaviors require similar attention? Don’t you agree that defining “normal” can’t really be such an easy matter?
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.